NASA's Heliophysics Gallery

The Sun is a major influence on the Earth's weather and climate. The focus of NASA's Sun-Solar System Connection is to understand this relationship from the perspective of the entire system.

You can find out more by visiting the Heliophysics Page, the NASA Living with a Star program, and the Solar-Terrestrial Probe web site.

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News of the Heliosphere!

Recent Releases

Here are visualization products we've recently released.
  • GOLD: Instrument Scanning Coverage
    A basic view of the orbit for GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). This mission will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition and ionization better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD in geostationary orbit around Earth. The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. In the latter half of the visualization, the viewing fields of the GOLD instrument are displayed. GOLD has an imaging spectrometer (green) that periodically scans the disk of Earth with additional higher-resolution scans of the dayside limb.
  • Mapping Particle Injections in Earth's Magnetosphere
    When energetic particles are injected into Earth's radiation belts, perhaps by a reconnection event in Earth's magnetotail, they can become trapped by the geomagnetic field. Consequently, these energetic particles will propagate around Earth as they slowly disperse. If a satellite with particle monitors lies along the particle trajectory, the satellite can detect these particles (Prompt Electron Acceleration in the Radiation Belts). With multiple satellite detections, it is possible to approximately reconstruct the origin and path of the original particle injection. These visualizations illustrate the results of this reconstruction applied to a series of particle injections detected by multiple satellites on April 7, 2016.
  • ICON Scans the Ionosphere
    The ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) satellite orbits Earth at an altitude of 575 kilometers. In this visualization, we show the ICON spacecraft with the fields-of-view of four instruments for measuring the properties of the ionosphere.
  • Heliophysics Sentinels 2017
    There have been few changes since the 2015 Earth-Orbiting Heliophysics Fleet. As of summer 2017, here's a tour of the NASA Heliophysics fleet from the near-Earth satellites out to the Voyagers beyond the heliopause.

  • 2017 Solar Eclipse
    During the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, the Moon's shadow will pass over all of North America. The path of the umbra, where the eclipse is total, stretches from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the contiguous United States in 38 years.
  • The 2017 and Other Solar Eclipse Resources
    During the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, the Moon's shadow will pass over all of North America. The path of the umbra, where the eclipse is total, stretches from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the contiguous United States in 38 years.
  • Leaky Radiation Belts
    Since their discovery at the dawn of the Space Age, Earth's radiation belts continue to reveal new complex structures and behaviors. During a particularly intense event in late June 2015, the inner edge of the region of trapped electrons moved closer to Earth. As the region retreated outward, it left behind a population of high-energy electrons forming another radiation belt inside the L=2 shell (The 'L-shell' value identifies a field line in a magnetic dipole. The numerical value corresponds to the furthest distance from Earth in Earth radii, in this case two Earth radii). This flux of high-energy electrons persisted considerably longer than expected, the relativistic electrons slowly leaking away. It took over a year for the relativistic electron flux in the belt to decline below the level of detectability for the instruments on the Van Allen Probes. The 3-dimensional radiation belt model in the visualizations above was constructed by propagating electron flux measurements, corresponding to a given time and distance from Earth measured by the Van Allen Probes, along a 3-dimensional structure of magnetic dipole field lines.
  • STEREO at Ten
    The STEREO mission has been in operation for 10 years.
  • Prompt Electron Acceleration in the Radiation Belts
    On March 17, 2016, Van Allen Probe A detected a pulse of high energy electrons in the radiation belts, generated by the impact of a recent coronal mass ejection striking Earth's magnetosphere. The gradient drift speed of the electron pulse was high enough, that it propagated completely around Earth and was detected by the spacecraft again as the pulse spread out in the radiation belt. Because the particles have a range of energies, the pulse spread out as it moved around Earth, generating a weaker signal the next time it hit the spacecraft.
  • The Dynamic Solar Magnetic Field
    While the sun is well known as the overwhelming source of visible light in our solar system, a substantial part of its influence is driven by some aspects less visible to human perception - the magnetic field. Most of the solar photosphere has a magnetic field intensity of a few gauss while the active regions which form around sunspots can have magnetic fields of a few thousand gauss. Modern space-based instruments such as HMI (Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager) on the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) enable us to measure the intensity of the magnetic field at the visible surface of the sun. In this visualization, the sphere represents the solar photosphere, with neutral grey indicating a magnetic field of near zero intensity, black representing a magnetic field pointing INTO the sun (south or negative polarity) and white representing a magnetic field pointing OUT of the sun (north or positive polarity). We see that these magnetic regions often appear in nearby pairs of opposite polarities - which in visible light would often correspond to a pair of sunspots. Using this measured magnetic field on the photosphere, combined with mathematical models based on Maxwell's equations and plasma physics, we can construct how the magnetic field would look above the photosphere. Here, the white magnetic field lines are considered 'closed'. The move up, and then return to the solar surface. We often see these closed lines associated with pairs of active regions on the sun. The green and violet lines represent field lines that are considered 'open'. Green represents positive magnetic polarity, and violet represents negative polarity. These field lines do not connect back to the sun but with more distant magnetic fields in space. Here we build one of the simpler magnetic field models, called Potential Field Source Surface or PFSS, to construct how the magnetic 'lines of force' might look above the sun. The PFSS model represents the simplest and most steady magnetic field possible, though here we sample the field each day to illustrate the slow changes of the magnetic structure over time, in this case between January 1, 2011 through December 30, 2014. This camera view is fixed in Carrington Heliographic coordinates, so it moves with an 'average' solar rotation value with a period of 25.38 days. The solar equator moves faster than this, and high latitudes move slower. This makes active regions near the equator appear to move to the right (on average) while higher latitude regions move leftward. Some might note that this model looks rather different than an earlier version The Sun's Magnetic Field. In the earlier version, we were interested in the magnetic field structure significantly above the solar surface and so the model is examined favoring the field lines that reach high above the photosphere. In the model presented here, we are more interested in the magnetic field around the solar active regions, so we examine the model much closer to the photosphere, which favors magnetic field lines clustered around the active regions. An artifact in this visualization is a 'jump' of change that sweeps through the magnetic loops about once per month based on the timestamp in the lower left corner. This is an artifact of the fact that these types of magnetic field measurements can only be done on one side of the sun at a time. As the sun rotates, the features disappear over the limb and new ones appear on the opposite limb. While on the far-side of the sun from Earth, we have no direct measurements. However, we do have models that can simulate the slow changes in the field while not visible from Earth (described in the science paper Photospheric and heliospheric magnetic fields by Carolus J. Schrijver and Marc L. De Rosa). The 'jump' is created at the seam where the less accurate model gets overwritten by newer data.
  • Space Weather to the Edge of the Solar System
    Everyone likes to check the weather in a far away destination before they travel there. This is especially true for spaceflight, where the destination may be where no one has gone before. The mission of New Horizons to Pluto provided an opportunity to test our current space weather models, pushing them to the limit. This visualization presents the results from an Enlil model run, just one of the many space weather models being tested through the Community-Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as part of the "New Horizons Flyby Modeling Challenge". This visualization presents a slice of the data through the ecliptic plane, the plane in which the planets of our solar system orbit. Because Pluto is a bit above this plane, the orbit is projected into the ecliptic plane of the data, as is the trajectory of the New Horizons probe. Three different variables are presented from the model - temperature, density, and pressure gradient, simultaneously, using the red, green and blue color channels of the color image. The density of the solar wind (green) flowing outward from the sun decreases as it spreads out. The temperature stays roughly constant as the solar wind material spreads through the solar system. We see the Parker spiral imprinted on the outflow from the spinning sun, much like the outflow from a spinning water sprinkler. We also see the strong density gradients (blue) created by coronal mass ejections and other shocks, propagating outward from the sun in the solar wind. We can observe regions of interesting interactions when the three primary colors of the basic variables combine to enhance the color, represented in the tricolor diagram below. White represents a hot, dense shock, while cyan (blue-green) represents a dense shock (usually visible close to the sun), magenta (purple) represents a hot, low-density shock, while yellow indicates hot and dense material, again usually close to the sun.
  • SOHO Approaches 3000 Comet Discoveries
    A listing of all the visualizations showing SOHO and its discovery of comets.
  • A Slice of Light: How IRIS Observes the Sun
    The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) explorer is one of the latest imaging spectrographs developed for NASA missions, this one designed for exploring the energization process in the solar chromosphere at higher resolution than previously possible. An imaging spectrograph not only takes an image of the region of interest, but also has a small slit in the imager (seen as a dark line about half-way across the image) which passes a thin ribbon of light to a spectroscope. The spectroscope spreads the light out in its component frequencies or spectrum. Monitoring of specfic spectral lines provides additional information on the velocity (and therefore temperature) of plasma in the observed region. In the visualization presented here, the IRIS slit-jaw imager (SJI) takes images with two different filters, one at 1330 Angstroms (gold color table), the other at 1400 Angstroms (bronze color table), and these images are displayed overlaying corresponding imagery from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) 304 Angstrom filter (grayscale). The spectra, in this case a closeup view on the 1403 Angstrom line from 3-times ionized silicon (designated Si IV), is presented on a semi-transparent plane perpendicular to the images, at the position of the slit in the imager. This allows us to see correlations between features in the images and spectra. For example, some of the bright spots in the image correlate to wider regions along the line suggesting higher temperatures and/or velocities of the plasma emitting the spectral line. To better examine the region, the instrument also scans the slit over the region of interest, collecting multiple spectra. This allows scientists to compare and correlate structures seen in images with speeds and temperatures of the plasma. Imaging spectrographs have been flown on other NASA missions, such as the STIS instrument on the Hubble space telescope.
  • The 2015 Earth-Orbiting Heliophysics Fleet
    There've been a few changes since the 2013 Earth-Orbiting Heliophysics Fleet. As of Spring of 2015, here's a tour of the NASA Near-Earth Heliophysics fleet, covering the space from near-Earth orbit out to the orbit of the Moon.

    The satellite orbits are color coded for their observing program:

    • Magenta: TIM (Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere) observations
    • Yellow: solar observations and imagery
    • Cyan: Geospace and magnetosphere
    • Violet: Heliospheric observations

    Near-Earth Fleet:

    • Hinode: Observes the Sun in multiple wavelengths up to x-rays. SVS page
    • RHESSI : Observes the Sun in x-rays and gamma-rays. SVS page
    • TIMED: Studies the upper layers (40-110 miles up) of the Earth's atmosphere.
    • CINDI: Measures interactions of neutral and charged particles in the ionosphere.
    • SORCE: Monitors solar intensity across a broad range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
    • AIM: Images and measures noctilucent clouds. SVS page
    • Van Allen Probes: Two probes moving along the same orbit esigned to study the impact of space weather on Earth's radiation belts. SVS page
    • TWINS: Two Wide-Angle Imaging Neutral-Atom Spectrometers (TWINS) are two probes observing the Earth with neutral atom imagers.
    • IRIS: Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph is designed to take high-resolution spectra and images of the region between the solar photosphere and solar atmosphere.

    Geosynchronous Fleet:

    • SDO: Solar Dynamics Observatory keeps the Sun under continuous observation at 16 megapixel resolution.

    Geospace Fleet:

    Lunar Orbiting Fleet

    • ARTEMIS: Two of the THEMIS satellites were moved into lunar orbit to study the interaction of the Earth's magnetosphere with the Moon.
    Major changes with earlier versions:
    • MMS added
    • GOES satellites removed
    • Cluster satellites removed
    • Camera moves around the night-side of Earth
    • .
  • Radiation Belts & the Plasmapause
    The near-Earth space enviroment is a complex interaction between Earth's magnetic field, cool plasma moving up from Earth's ionosphere, and hotter plasma coming in from the solar wind. This interactions combine to maintain the radiation belts around Earth. Plasma interactions can generate sharply delineated regions in these belts. In addition to the inner and outer radiation belts, the cooler plasma of the plasmasphere interacts so that it keeps out the higher-energy electrons from outside its boundary (called the plasmapause). In this visualization, the radiation belts (rainbow-color) and plasmapause (blue-green surface) surround Earth, its structure largely determined by Earth's dipole magnetic field (represented by cyan curved lines). The radiation belt is sliced open, simultaneously revealing representative confined charged particles spiraling around the magnetic field structure. Yellow particles represent negative-charged electrons, blue particles represent positive-charged ions. However, if realistically scaled for particle mass and energies, the spiral motion would not be visible at this distance so particle masses and size scales are adjusted to make them visible. The inner blue-green plasmapause boundary is then sliced open to reveal more of the inner structure of the radiation belts, including the innermost belt.
  • Carrington-Class CME of 2012
    The BIG coronal mass ejection that missed Earth.

New Heliophysics Missions

NASA Heliophysics Resources

We live in an exciting environment: the heliosphere, the exotic outer atmosphere of a star. The heliosphere is an immense magnetic bubble that extends well beyond the orbit of Pluto. This bubble contains our solar system, solar wind, and the entire solar magnetic field. The heliosphere is also the one part of the cosmos accessible to direct scientific investigation; our only hands-on astrophysical laboratory. As our society becomes ever more dependent on technology, we are increasingly susceptible to space weather disturbances in this tumultuous region. We call the study of the connections between the sun and the solar system, Heliophysics.'

The Missions

  • Sentinels of the Heliosphere
    Heliophysics is a term to describe the study of the Sun, its atmosphere or the heliosphere, and the planets within it as a system. As a result, it encompasses the study of planetary atmospheres and their magnetic environment, or magnetospheres. These environments are important in the study of space weather. As a society dependent on technology, both in everyday life, and as part of our economic growth, space weather becomes increasingly important. Changes in space weather, either by solar events or geomagnetic events, can disrupt and even damage power grids and satellite communications. Space weather events can also generate x-rays and gamma-rays, as well as particle radiations, that can jeopardize the lives of astronauts living and working in space. This visualization tours the regions of near-Earth orbit; the Earth's magnetosphere, sometimes called geospace; the region between the Earth and the Sun; and finally out beyond Pluto, where Voyager 1 and 2 are exploring the boundary between the Sun and the rest of our Milky Way galaxy. Along the way, we see these regions patrolled by a fleet of satellites that make up NASA's Heliophysics Observatory Telescopes. Many of these spacecraft do not take images in the conventional sense but record fields, particle energies and fluxes in situ. Many of these missions are operated in conjunction with international partners, such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA). The Earth and distances are to scale. Larger objects are used to represent the satellites and other planets for clarity. Here are the spacecraft featured in this movie:

    Near-Earth Fleet:

    • Hinode: Observes the Sun in multiple wavelengths up to x-rays. SVS page
    • RHESSI : Observes the Sun in x-rays and gamma-rays. SVS page
    • TRACE: Observes the Sun in visible and ultraviolet wavelengths. SVS page
    • TIMED: Studies the upper layers (40-110 miles up) of the Earth's atmosphere.
    • FAST: Measures particles and fields in regions where aurora form.
    • CINDI: Measures interactions of neutral and charged particles in the ionosphere.
    • AIM: Images and measures noctilucent clouds. SVS page

    Geospace Fleet:

    • Geotail: Conducts measurements of electrons and ions in the Earth's magnetotail.
    • Cluster: This is a group of four satellites which fly in formation to measure how particles and fields in the magnetosphere vary in space and time. SVS page
    • THEMIS: This is a fleet of five satellites to study how magnetospheric instabilities produce substorms. SVS page

    L1 Fleet:

    The L1 point is a Lagrange Point, a point between the Earth and the Sun where the gravitational pull is approximately equal. Spacecraft can orbit this location for continuous coverage of the Sun.
    • SOHO: Studies the Sun with cameras and a multitude of other instruments. SVS page
    • ACE: Measures the composition and characteristics of the solar wind.
    • Wind: Measures particle flows and fields in the solar wind.

    Heliospheric Fleet

    • STEREO-A and B: These two satellites observe the Sun, with imagers and particle detectors, off the Earth-Sun line, providing a 3-D view of solar activity. SVS page

    Heliopause Fleet

    • Voyager 1 and 2: These spacecraft conducted the original 'Planetary Grand Tour' of the solar system in the 1970s and 1980s. They have now travelled further than any human-built spacecraft and are still returning measurements of the interplanetary medium. SVS page
    This enhanced, narrated visualization was shown at the SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Animation Festival in New Orleans, LA in August 2009; an eariler version created for AGU was called NASA's Heliophysics Observatories Study the Sun and Geospace.

Selected Keywords & Series

Mesosphere to Heliopause